Citizen K in the USA

In his novel The Trial, Franz Kafka conjured up the nightmarish, surreal yet strangely familiar world of an ordinary person trapped in a web of bewildering governmental repressions. Inexplicably, the eponymous protagonist “Joseph K” suddenly finds himself under relentless investigation—and is then abruptly arrested. Throughout his ordeal, the charges will remain undisclosed. (“Is it political?” gasps Jeanne Moreau, in Orson Welles’ film version; or, as Orwell’s Winston Smith would say, “is it a thought-crime?”) “Free” from incarceration while he awaits trial, Joseph travels through a labyrinth of impersonal offices, baffling court procedures, and inscrutable explanations–only to find himself, once again, back at the beginning of his quest for answers.

The sadistic travesty of justice perpetrated at Guantanamo immediately comes to mind. But what about conditions here in the “Homeland”? Trapped in endless litigation–or in the clutches of creditors or foreclosers—how many millions of U.S. citizens also feel like Joseph K? At one time or another, highly complicated legal quandaries and arcane bureaucratic tangles plague most of us. Lately, however, we’ve been inclined to worry more about our Internet communications: are they being surreptitiously intercepted and stored permanently (PRISM)? In order to be periodically retrieved, scrutinized and “analyzed”? If so, why?

The NSA Director, appearing on TV’s Sixty Minutes, hastened to reassure all (mere) citizens that–despite its mega-billion-dollar budget and ongoing expansion (the giant Utah data-storage complex)–the NSA is currently only actively focusing on less than “60 U.S. persons.” Was Gen. Keith Alexander telling “the whole truth” (to use a quaint phrase)? Or was he giving us, as did James Clapper (DNI) in his unsworn congressional testimony, the “least untruthful” answers he felt obliged to offer?

Therefore, our average Joseph K today is just a tiny bit worried that most (if not all) of his communications are being permanently stored, and subject at any future time to sophisticated “analysis”—under whatever rationale meddlesome technocrats may come up with. If not by the neighborly “analysts” at the NSA, then what about the other dozen-or-so “intelligence” agencies? What mischief are they up to? Joseph, who finds everyday life complicated enough, also finds himself wondering about all those marketing “research” firms, think-tank contractors, credit bureaus, and so on. How are they “mining” and storing his personal data? He doesn’t know.

But enough of that—Joseph K has enough troubles without succumbing to an obsessive paranoia! He’s even tempted to get rid of the Internet all together: his “service” stinks and he’s always hated computers. But wait! Our Joseph K has just been told—by some faceless bureaucrat—that he must quickly go the website “Healthcare.gov” and register to shop for (mandatory) private health insurance. Again, Joseph finds himself perplexed: frankly, he loathes hospitals and drug companies—and has managed quite well without them. Moreover—or so Joseph insists–if he finds himself suffering from terminal cancer, he may choose to die—rather than subject himself to dubious, degrading (and still-expensive) “procedures.” (And Joseph K is also aware that preventable medical errors are, by some estimates, the “third leading cause of death” in the U.S. today.) Joseph, you see, is one of those old-fashioned curmudgeons, the type that once embraced a radical-populism and hated Big Business and Big Government with equal fervor. He even thinks (can you believe it?) that the entire insurance industry is some kind of racket—and wants no part of it!

And admittedly, our Joseph K is not very “computer-literate” and finds it more than a little exasperating to try to comprehend all the provisions of a jerry-built “Affordable” Care Act. Couldn’t the government, he asks, have mailed (simplified) application forms to each and every citizen (counted in the 2010 U.S. Census)? He’s always found legalistic small-print, provisos and disclaimers more than a little confusing (and annoying). Given such typically over-complicated ordeals, Joseph understandably has become a fanatic for simplification. Why can’t “the government,” he again recently demanded, simply establish “Medicare for All”? After all, he pointed out, “we” spend trillions for “defense”—and from whom, exactly? He doesn’t know (but was under the impression that the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race ended some time ago).

Well, to make a long story short: our friend Joseph, feeling trapped between corrupt insurance giants and coercive big government, was so demoralized that he decided to leave all this behind. So much so, it turns out, that he urgently asked his creator Kafka to return him back to the world of fiction–wherein he will at least continue his Sisyphean struggle against coercion with some measure of defiance and tragic dignity.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.